60-Second Science

Engineers Take Step Closer to Smell-a-Vision

A proof-of-concept design shows that including a system to generate smells to accompany TV images is "quite doable." Karen Hopkin reports

How many times has it happened to you: you’re sitting around watching a rerun of Friends and you think: Man, if only I could catch a whiff of that hazelnut mocchaccino they’re all pretending to drink. Well, me neither.

But engineers have now developed a programmable, odor-emitting device that, like it or not, brings us one step closer to realizing the dream of smell-a-vision. Their design is described in the journal Angewandte Chemie. [Hyunsu Kim et al, An X–Y Addressable Matrix Odor-Releasing System Using an On–Off Switchable Device]

TV tickles us with sight and sound. Why not smells? All you’d need is a box that would sit near the set and generate fragrances that match the images on screen: a woman’s perfume or a hot apple pie. But how big would the device have to be to generate thousands of odors?

To keep the dimensions down, the scientists envision using a 100-by-100 grid, so that just 200 on/off switches could unleash 10,000 stored bouquets. Which they say makes the whole thing “quite doable.”

The question then becomes: why would anyone want to do it? Presumably there are some things that are best left unsmelled. Because a sound cue is perfectly sufficient to tell us where Archie Bunker or Al Bundy has just been.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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